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Review: What If I Told You, Royal Exchange

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Image: West Yorkshire Playhouse website

What If I Told You by Pauline Mayers

Royal Exchange, Manchester [19.06.17]

Enter the empty space. Leave your belongings beside the wall – you will not be needing them. Form a circle. There’s something quite wholesome about it. And your evening has begun.

Pauline Mayers’ What If I Told You (WIITY) is an exploration of life as a black woman in the performance world and beyond, delivered through storytelling, movement and tableux. This immersive experience places the audience within Pauline’s story but also allows us to revisit our own life experiences. This is a work that focuses on each of us being present, a necessary component of having access to the many truths of the piece.

Pauline invites us to play, embrace one another, see each other and hear her truth. WIITY is a historical playground that illustrates the bullying and abusing of black women’s bodies through time. We are exposed to the harsh truths of experiments conducted on black women by Dr J. Marion Sims in the name of gynaecology and told the names of three of the black women he experimented on: Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. This alongside the flooding of ‘Black Lives Matter’ chanting, highlights the true war that has been and still is upon black bodies in the Western world. Pauline invites us into a space that contains black pain but she does not turn this into a spectacle. She acknowledges these experiences with a truthfulness and encourages us to reflect on how and why these events are occurring.

These narratives are weaved into Pauline’s personal experiences. She tells us of her journey from childhood to girlhood to adulthood. When she describes her audition for the Rambert School, she talks of how she has the shortest legs of all of the girls in the room. And for a moment, this brings up a memory I have from modelling. I remember being stood in a room with nine other girls who’s legs basically went up to my shoulders. And then I remember, the dodgy comments made about my thighs, nose and lips.

Back in the room and I feel even more connected to Pauline. This is likely in part due to the conversation we had over the phone where we discussed the way in which black women’s bodies are othered in theatre and the wider world. But it is also in part due to Pauline having the incredible ability to blur the edges between the theatrical play space she has created and the world outside of the studio.

Listening to Pauline’s journey through the arts world has given me hope. Her story is one that young black women should experience. It is unfortunately not often that you find a black woman in a space telling her story, talking about the challenges of her journey and absolutely smashing it. This is exactly what we need more of.

This piece ends with the audience being present and moving across the space and engaging with each other via a look or an embrace. At this point, I will admit I became quite disengaged. For me, physical contact is something to only be shared with those I am close to. I initially felt unsettled watching people hug each other and spent the next day questioning why that was. I do not have a conclusion yet but, I know this was a unique moment in which people were able to just be, together.

Verdict: What If I Told You is wonderful piece of storytelling that allows us to step into Pauline’s shoes and those of black women in history. Through measured physicality and emotive and engaging storytelling, we are able to truly be present with Pauline and explore our own narratives alongside hers. Go see it at Edinburgh Fringe this summer!

 

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Interview: Pauline Mayers on…

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Image: West Yorkshire Playhouse Website

It’s Monday morning.

This time last week, I had a conversation with Pauline Mayers about her currently touring show What If I Told You, perceptions of black women’s bodies in arts spaces and the wider world and, what it’s like being a person of colour in a white dominated industry.

Pauline on… art and defining herself as an artist

I define art as a means of being able to see the world in a different way, to explore the world through a different door, a different approach to life, different places and different times.

Pauline highlighted how art provides the space for you to express yourself in a way that you cannot in other spheres. It creates more avenues and connections, with the self and the wider world.

Regarding defining oneself as an artist, Pauline does not place herself in a box. She is a lover of reading, research, finding things out; she loves to evolve. Pauline describes herself as a risk taker, agent provocateur and artistic revolutionist.

 

Pauline on…working as a black woman in theatre and dance

Pauline has danced for many years all over the world  – she always wanted to express herself. She described the ongoing commentary on her black body and stressed what appears to be the obvious in that, we all have bodies. Change needs to come surrounding perceptions of black bodies in space but we are not yet at that point. The same goes for listening to black narratives, Pauline spoke of the disbelief in her experiences that occurs within theatre spaces and how audiences doubt her truth because it is not within their repetoire of experiences. Pauline owns her story when she shares it in a performance space because it is her truth. It is unfortunate that POC do not get to own performance spaces often.

She shared her refusal to perform for Black History Month and her disappointment at the last minute nature of programming for this month and Black theatre seasons.

We also touched the importance of being able to see yourself reflected in the theatre, especially as it is such a white dominated space and that a change needs to come. Pauline mentioned her participation in Eclipse’s SLATE Project. She described how the focus on process was something she had not experienced in a long time and how such experiences are rarely available for artists of colour.

Pauline on… the experience of POC in theatre and beyond

POC are rarely listened to, when discussing their experiences there is always a caveat of ‘oh yes, but…’ and never a moment of ‘I hear you’. Pauline who has trained as a counselor highlights that POC are less likely to participate in Talking Therapies and that comes from not being able to speak their truth and always being challenged. Their psychological injuries are sidelined.

Pauline on…POC as emerging artists 

Pauline described an experience she had when presenting a piece of work and an onlooker expressed surprise that her piece was so well rounded. Having huge amounts of experience, after 30 years in the business it should look professional, Pauline exclaims.

POC are brilliant at doing many things at the same time. However, POC are too frequently boxed off as emerging artists, which creates two problems: a stagnation of progression and POC all competing with each other for a platform. Why are we all fighting for one space? Why are we having to take someone out in order to have artistic space?

Whilst opportunities are few and far between, we then face the battle of longevity and siustainability. Pauline states that theatres need to be talking to artists and finding out what they wantUnemployment is a huge issue for artists of colour – where are the sustained work opportunities?

Pauline on…What If I Told You and what’s next

What If I Told You is a calling card,  a reminder that she cannot give up on this artist thing. It’s a part of her DNA. Within this she highlights the importance of accepting the lows but focusing into the work and how this allows you to settle into your calling. She believes it is essential that we spend more time with ourselves and reflect on what it is to be human. By doing such reflections, she wonders if the world would be less divided.

She intends to continue creating work and building the Mayers Ensemble. Alongside this, she would like to continue working collaboratively and venture into directing.

 

What If I Told You is on at the Royal Exchange on Tuesday 20th June and then moves to Edinburgh Fringe, performing between 11-26th August.

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